When we began this series, we thought the outfield would be the weakest of the positions as far as high-end prospects go. Now that it’s time to write this piece in the series, there’s more depth than what we thought there was, and there might well be more high-ceiling players at the lower levels than we originally gave the Cubs credit for.
Current MLB Status: In Flux
Jorge Soler – He could be traded by as early as Monday the 7th, or he could be a key part of the core going forward for several years to come.
Kyle Schwarber – Questionable defensively in LF, though he hasn’t practiced much in the outfield. For him, though, it’s all about the bat.
Chris Coghlan – Signed on for one more year and improved greatly on the defensive end in 2015. The BABIP gods were not kind to him in the first half of 2015.
Matt Szczur – He’s a reserve at best. Doubtful he makes the team coming out of spring training, but he could.
That’s it. The Cubs only have 4 outfielders on the roster. And we aren’t quite ready to put Kris Bryant’s name in that hat yet either.
And just as we were ready to post the article, this happened
#Cubs Javy Baez to play CF in Puerto Rico winter ball. Has already started with Santurce. Dascenzo to go watch/mentor
— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) December 4, 2015
Todd likes the idea of Baez in center, which he played a lot in high school. It is not unfamiliar to him and there’s really only one thing you need to remember: Baez is a good athlete with great instincts and plus defensive skills at every position he plays. Almost immediately, his arm is better than anything the Cubs had in center last year. Plain and simple, Baez is a ballplayer who is willing to play any position in order to be in the lineup.
Offensively, this could be the most dynamic outfield in the majors in the next 2-3 years. Defensively, it’s going to take a lot of work to be average.
MINOR LEAGUE PROSPECTS
The Big Three Aren’t Really That Big
At the higher levels of the minors, Albert Almora, Billy McKinney, and Mark Zagunis take up most of the publicity. Almora is defensively ready now, McKinney’s hitting profile is probably the most advanced, and Zagunis has the best approach and plate discipline. None of their tools scream elite prospect now.
Almora could be that elite guy, but has yet to show that he can hit for average to go along with his outstanding defensive prowess. Almora is a ball hawk, gliding and diving to catch anything in his path. At the plate, however, he gets out of sync very quickly and had a poor plan and approach through the first few months of the season. In the second half, he really picked it up, putting together a better two-strike approach which led to a better average and OBP. If he’s able to keep up the improvements, the Cubs could have their everyday CF of the future waiting in the wings at Des Moines.
Zagunis came out like gangbusters in 2015 before going into a horrific slump in July that saw his batting average plummet from over .300 down to .271, yet still remained one of the top 10 hitters in the pitcher-friendly Carolina League. It will be interesting to see how Zagunis does in a more hitter-friendly climate at AA Tennessee. The one big knock on him is his lack of power, as it remains to be seen if he can put up the requisite 10-15 homers current corner outfielders in the majors need at the very minimum. His approach is terrific, but he’ll be challenged more as he reaches the upper levels. If he can smack the ball in AA, he’ll turn into a legitimate corner outfield prospect.
McKinney, meanwhile, has the most advanced hit tool out of the three and projects for average power. His approach is impressive for how young he is (just turned 21 in August!). In the field, he lacks the speed necessary for CF and the arm for RF so he’ll really have to prove himself at the plate to maintain a starting role, though we think he has the approach to succeed. For McKinney and Almora, AAA might be just what they need to break out of their hitting slumps. The Pacific Coast league is known more for its hitting than pitching.
Some Role Players
Jacob Hannemann and Bijan Rademacher both spent a large portion of the season at Tennessee and have potential as fourth outfielders. Rademacher is a converted pitcher, so he has a plus arm out in right and is athletic. At the plate he has a smart approach and average power. The question is whether his hit tool will play as more advanced pitchers with better stuff challenge him in the zone. Hannemann had many highlight-reel catches this season for the Smokies and he is among the fastest players in system. He is on the older side for prospects because he took some time off from baseball to go on a Mormon mission trip in college, so he’s not as advanced as his age would suggest. The upcoming year is his last chance to prove he can hit enough to sustain a major-league role, and if he can’t, he’ll bounce around as an organizational guy.
Well, Look What We Have Here!
It is in A-ball where you are going to find the more explosive type prospects for the Cubs. Leading the way is Eloy Jimenez, who will be in South Bend in 2016. Jimenez gave everyone a small glimpse of his power potential in limited duty at Eugene, blasting 7 HRs in 52 games while also hitting for a high average (.284). Despite being only 18 himself at the time (turned 19 on November 27th), Jimenez acted like a leader on the field when it came to some of the younger Cubs prospects from the Dominican down at instructs. Look for him to have a strong year developmentally at South Bend, even if the numbers don’t show it.
Next will likely be Eddy Julio Martinez (that sounds nice to say). Signed out of Cuba, Martinez ultimately ended up in the Cubs’ lap for $3 million after complications in his deal with the Giants. The 6’2”, 195 pound outfielder played for Las Tunas in Cuba’s Series Nacional. Scouts who have seen Martinez have had mixed reviews, with some comparing him to former Atlanta Braves All-Star Andruw Jones, while others seeing him as more of a fourth outfielder type. He has a solid, compact frame with athleticism, has shown good instincts, and reads the ball well in the outfield. He also has an accurate, average arm, and scouts think can play in center in the majors. At the plate, he has a quick, compact stroke and has shown the ability to hit home runs to all fields in batting practice. He also has plus speed and is willing to be aggressive on the base paths. His debut next year, possibly in South Bend, will be one of the biggest storylines of the new season in the minors
The Cubs’ 2015 second round pick Donnie Dewees will likely be in the star-studded outfield as well. Dewees is a high octane mixture of hit tool and speed. If he can hit for some power, he could move quickly. His arm limits him in the outfield, but he has the potential to stick at center and be a nuisance to opposing pitchers at the top of the order for a long time. It should be a fun few months next summer in South Bend.
The Wild Card
Darryl Wilson– Nicknamed DJ, Wilson was drafted in the fourth round and signed for $1.3 million in 2015. The over-slot payment allowed the Cubs to snatch him away from Tim Corbin’s baseball powerhouse at Vanderbilt. He is a short, athletic player with plus speed who reads the ball well and has range to the gaps. This, combined with his average arm, lead evaluators to think that he can stick at CF. At the plate he has a short left-handed stroke and creates lots of contact, then uses his speed to beat out infield hits. He has more strength than you might think in his 5’8”, 177 pound frame, but the overall lack of power is always going to be in question. He’s likely to spend some time in Arizona following Spring Training and should be patrolling CF for the Eugene Emeralds.
Shawon Dunston Jr. and Charcer Burks are two other names in the lower levels to keep an eye on. Dunston was injured for much of the year but still has above-average speed and a quick swing at the plate. Look for him to return to Myrtle Beach to start the season. Burks is a tremendously athletic outfielder who has the speed and instincts to possibly stick at CF. He has almost filled out his stout frame and barely hit for any power the previous season, leaving many to question what his output will be at higher levels. At the plate he has quick hands and a knack for putting bat on ball. He is fast, which will allow his average to play up, and has a decent approach for a player so young. He could start the year with the Pelicans, where he’ll be just 21, and he could jump up the rankings if his power improves.
Rashad Crawford is a favorite of Todd’s. He has improved every year and starting to develop a high average (.280) to go with his speed. At 6’3” and 185 pounds, Crawford still has some room to fill out, but his mental approach and work ethic could mean a breakout year in 2016 if he develops any semblance of power.
Kevonte Mitchell really struggled in 2015 at the plate, but he is extremely athletic with the chance to stick at center. It should be interesting to see how he rebounds this summer and whether he repeats Eugene or goes to South Bend.
Trey Martin already has two Gold Gloves on his trophy case. The problem has been that the bat is far behind. 2015 was a rough year at the plate as he battled injuries.
Alex Bautista – Being so low in the minors, the 2015 draftee showed flashes of power and speed last year at 2015. We are intrigued to see how he does in a full season of playing just for the Cubs. The question is at what affiliate he will play. It’s pretty crowded at South Bend with Jimenez, Dewees, and Martinez, while Eugene will be full with Darryl Wilson, Kevonte Mitchell, and Robert Garcia.
To Wrap it Up
It should be interesting to see Baez progress this winter and at Spring Training. If he can stick at the position, it changes a lot of things about the Cubs and the outfield picture.
We will conclude our position profiles at the end of December with looks at relief pitchers and then starting pitchers.